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The Cambridge Companion to Piaget

reviewed by Richard De Lisi - October 04, 2010

coverTitle: The Cambridge Companion to Piaget
Author(s): Ulrich Müller, Jeremy I. M. Carpendale, and Leslie Smith (eds.)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0521898587, Pages: 440, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

The energy in the late day, packed auditorium was palpable. It seemed evident that Piaget understood questions posed in English despite waiting for translations to be completed before answering. If memory serves, the main point of the lecture on creativity by Piaget was that human intellectual development is itself a creative process. What was (and still is) unique to Piaget is the idea that human creativity is not predetermined or limited to a small number of especially talented individuals, not accidental, and not engineered by external agents. Piaget came to Baltimore knowing that his ideas about human creativity were difficult for an American audience to grasp.

To make his case, Piaget summarized findings from empirical studies that probed children’s reasoning and invoked processes of equilibration, logical-mathematical experience, and reflective abstraction to explain creativity in childhood. During the session Piaget was asked to account for his own creativity. As I recall and as recounted in Bringuier (1980, pp. 127-8), Piaget said he used three methods: first read nothing in the field you are working in until you have conducted your own work; second, read as much as you can in related fields; third, have a whipping boy, which for Piaget was logical positivism.

The discerning reader of The Cambridge Companion to Piaget can gain considerable insight into Piaget’s worldview on the development of human knowledge from infancy through adolescence, and into each of his “methods” of creativity. When he began his work in the 1920’s it was not too difficult to “read nothing in the field.” Indeed, the field that Piaget worked in was being created by him, starting with a clinical interview methodology drawn from psychoanalytic and psychometric approaches to child study. Piaget’s approach to accounting for logical-mathematical or rational thought as found in adults by studying development in children was heavily influenced by ideas drawn from epistemology and biology. The connections between the biological-epistemological framework Piaget adopted throughout his long career and his empirical investigations are an important theme in The Cambridge Companion to Piaget.  In several chapters, Piaget’s most important ideas and their articulation over time are carefully traced as he worked to build on his intellectual precursors and make evident the limitations of those who appealed to conventional approaches that served to mechanize the creative force in human knowledge acquisition.

The Cambridge Companion to Piaget reminds us that Piaget’s work remained innovative and interdisciplinary from the 1920’s until his death in 1980. Several key points of contact between Piaget and American researchers and benefactors are described in this volume. It is interesting to discover, for example, that Piaget’s books on the “figurative” functions of cognition – perception, mental imagery, and memory – were motivated, in part, to counter interpretations offered by information processing theorists of the 1950’s -1960’s such as J. Bruner. The relative degree of isolation enjoyed by the Genevans during WW II was over. By “reading in his field” and traveling abroad, Piaget and his team became mindful of critiques that the 1960’s only foreshadowed, and they began to “accommodate” to perspectives on infant and child cognition that differed radically from Piaget’s despite superficial surface similarities. As predicted by Piaget’s equilibration model, this incorporation of contradictory perspectives led to the creation of new insights into childhood cognitive development. Above all else, perhaps, The Cambridge Companion to Piaget wants readers to understand that the period from 1970-1980 was extremely fertile. Yet, some thirty years later this work is largely ignored.

The felt need to reconcile divergent views is another theme highlighted throughout The Cambridge Companion to Piaget. At the time of his lecture on creativity in 1972, Piaget’s popularity in developmental psychology was unparalleled. The maturing “cognitive revolution” included diverse perspectives that had yet to become more fully differentiated. Piaget knew that his acclaim was uninformed on critical points. His central thesis that human knowledge is constructed by an organic, self-regulatory process (equilibration) was proposed long before the cognitive revolution of the 1950’s-1960’s. With constructivism, Piaget offered an alternative to standard views of knowledge as information accumulation or knowledge as unfolding. But in a cruel twist of fate, from the time of his death in 1980 to about 2000, Piaget became a kind of “whipping boy” for researchers and theorists alike, especially those that appeal to modularity of mind and innate, nascent competencies. And now a case can be made that opposition to Piaget’s ideas has largely shifted to indifference. For example, those who espouse a developmental approach to evolutionary psychology make scant reference to Piaget whose work had such deep roots in biological-evolutionary ideas. As a consequence, although Piaget’s remarkable and unprecedented contributions to developmental psychology are firmly established, many readers might wonder if Piaget’s ideas are mainly of historical interest.

The team responsible for The Cambridge Companion to Piaget wants to encourage readers to (re)consider Piaget’s work. The editorial team and the contributing authors offer an informed, authoritative, and comprehensive introduction to Piaget. The volume makes evident Piaget’s wide range of original scholarly contributions to topics that include affectivity, moral development, consciousness, pedagogy, methodology, biology, epistemology, developmental processes (e.g., equilibration, abstraction), social influences, and empirical demonstrations of new forms of knowing in infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Each of these topics is covered in a single chapter along with an informative introductory chapter, two chapters that present historical perspectives, and two concluding chapters that address the concept of stage and individual variability in cognitive performance.   

Given all that has been written about Piaget’s work including insightful summative introductions (Furth, 1981), careful tracing of ideas over time (Chapman, 1988), selective summaries of seminal empirical findings (Gruber & Voneche, 1977), and prior work by many of the present volume’s contributors, it is fair to ask whether or not the Cambridge Companion to Piaget breaks any new ground. On the whole, I think not (even the book’s cover photo of Piaget circa 1925 was previously used by Smith, 1993 p. x). Much of what has been said here has been said before. However, the editors are to be commended for requiring contributors to provide a frank assessment of current interest in Piaget’s work with points of criticism duly noted. There are two exceptions to this healthy feature of pointing out strengths and weaknesses in Piaget’s work. First was the lack of any chapter that systematically addressed Piaget’s changing views on the role of language in developmental constructivism and the critiques his views on language engendered (for example, Vygotsky and Chomsky receive almost no mention in the book). Second, the chapter on “developmental epistemology” by editor L. Smith might leave the naïve reader with an inflated view of the status of Piaget’s work in modern epistemology. In a recent personal communication, a philosopher colleague, E. Lepore, informed me that he knew of no modern American epistemologist whose work makes reference to Piaget. But to dwell on these shortcomings would be unfair. The volume presents a range of perspectives, not orthodoxy, and the editors were generous enough to allow contributors to offer views that at times did not align with those of other contributors, even the editors’ themselves.

The Cambridge Companion to Piaget only partially succeeds in achieving its objective of being accessible to advanced undergraduate students. Some chapters do this beautifully, but others are extremely dense and require a level of background knowledge more likely to be found in graduate students. The equal weight given to chapters on “affectivity” and “the social” on the one hand, and “childhood” on the other hand (one chapter for each topic area) is misleading for those unfamiliar with Piaget’s body of work. Piaget collected little data on affectivity and social influences in child development. Certainly, the extent of his writings on these topics pales in comparison to the lifetime of empirical and theoretical work on development during “childhood.” This observation is not intended as a critique of the chapter on childhood. It is simply to point out that an adequate summary of Piaget’s work on childhood would require volumes whereas a one chapter summary was adequate for other topics.

Overall, The Cambridge Companion to Piaget can be a useful starting point for use in a seminar or a research laboratory. The importance and impact of any book about Piaget’s work is perhaps best judged by the approach Piaget himself adopted. We humans have created a world in which information is often mistaken for understanding and virtual human interactions are ubiquitous. It is now almost impossible to either read “nothing in one’s field,” or “read widely in related fields.” Perhaps we must await another creative genius to provide new insights about meaning making in the twenty-first century. In the meantime, The Cambridge Companion to Piaget reminds us that for most of those interested in pursuing these issues, Piaget provides an excellent starting point.   


Bringuier, J-C. (1980). Conversations with Piaget. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chapman, M. (1988). Constructive evolution. Origins and development of Piaget’s thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Furth, H.G. (1981). Piaget and knowledge (second edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gruber, H., & Vonèche, J-J. (1977). The essential Piaget. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Smith, L. (1993). Necessary knowledge. Piagetian perspectives on constructivism. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 04, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16186, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 4:49:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Richard De Lisi
    Rutgers University
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD DE LISI, Ph.D. is dean of the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His research interests are on sex/gender differences in academic abilities and achievement. One of De Lisi’s current projects is working on the Rutgers component of the Regional Education Laboratory: Mid-Atlantic.
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